You Know That Child-Molesting Cult Dude? When His Wife Died He Swore She Would Remain Uncorrupted, and So He Kept Her Propped Up In His Chapel for Sixty-Five Days.

As some of you may know, I am a collector of taxidermy.  I love it very much and I find it comforting and it gives me the sense that things don’t really die, they just become fur.  But lately I have noticed a disturbing trend on eBay, my go-to source for all things deceased and preserved.  Right there in the taxidermy section they have this BULLWANKY stuff that, I don’t know, you tell me – is it taxidermy?!?  NO IT IS NOT.  It is stuffed animals.  It is plastic heads made to look like lions.  Pox on you plastic lion vendors.  I am fed up to here with that crap.  If I wanted a stuffed animal I would go to Wal-Mart.  (I would not go to Wal-Mart.)  If I wanted a big rubber head that takes up half my study I would go to a party store.  Here, let me show you what I mean:

Oh!  Oh, and how about this!  Here’s some fine fine taxidermy right here.  I was tempted to bid the maximum on this one, which was $1.00.


And you know what else puts a shine on my ass, so to speak?  When hunters or taxidermists make novelty items in order that we might make FUN of the living things.  A favorite is to take a deer’s rectum and turn it into a bottle opener.  HAHAHAHA!  I’ll bet you rectum lickers are voting for McCain!  There’s a million novelty items.  Toads playing billiards, 7,432,680 jackelopes.  Explain this to me.  A rabbit is a real animal, right?  And it lives and breathes, right?  And sometimes they die?  So isn’t it just SCREAMINGLY funny to put antlers on them?

Well, for heaven’s sakes, I feel vexed.

Here is my least favorite taxidermy of all time.  GAWD.

Published in: on September 27, 2008 at 11:31 pm  Comments (262)  

What We Talk About When We Talk About Non-Fiction


Oh, you weak beautiful people, who give up with such grace.  What you need is someone to take hold you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you.

                        –Tennesse Williams


Now that we’ve had the big hoe-down with fiction (and GAWD you people are good readers), I thought we should do the same with non-fiction.  As you can imagine, I read a huge number of memoirs as blurb requests; some of them are so squalid I feel as if the solution is to run my head over with my own car tires.  Some are the opposite.  In general, though, squalid rules the day, and people love it.  God bless them.

Before I begin, though, I had a list of my favorite gay fiction and it got buried under the ever-lovin’ crap on my desk – the same desk that violently heaved me away from it and caused me to seize like a mystic on the floor!  Just for reference.

The world would be a shadowy and angsty, ugly, factory-like building and we would all be wage slaves without our gay brethren and sistern.  Let us now sing or hum a bit of hallelujah for Oscar Wilde.  Thank you, Oscar.

Thank you, humane and funny and smart-as-a-sharpity whip, Robert Rodi.  You fill the world with joy and great ideas, and you are in all ways the definition of a good man.  For my blog babies, here a short list of his wonderful work:

Kept Boy

Fag Hag

Closet Case

Drag Queen

(What They Did To) Princess Paragon

Bitch Goddess (a minor masterpiece)

When You Were Me 

Robert also had a long career as a writer for comic books, which is cooler than anything I’ve ever done.  But I don’t know anything about comics, so I’ll have to ask him to drop in and explain that to us. 

I have a gay-girl crush on Stephen MacCauley, who wrote what has remained one of my favorite, nearly sleight-of-hand beautiful lines:  “Having recently turned 40, and more recently, 44 . . . .”  Pick up his Alternatives To Sex, The Man in the House, The Object of My Affection, True Enough, The Easy Way Out.

I adore Lisa Alther, David Leavitt, Alice Walker, James Baldwin.  Randall Kenan is so important I hesitate to categorize him in any way, except I’m pretty sure he’d never have sex with me; ergo, he’s gay.  I love you, Randall.

Truman Capote.  Truman Capote.  Tennessee Williams.  Christopher Isherwood.  W.H. Auden (although this is NOT the poetry post!), Albert Albee – born on my birthday.  Roland Barthes.  Quentin Crisp.  Michele Foucault.  Stephen Fry.  Frederica Garcia Lorca.  Noel Coward.  Paul Monette.  Frank O’Hara.  Maurice Sendak.  Gore Vidal.  Dorothy Allison.  Elizabeth Bishop (still not the poetry post, but she will reappear, you betcha).  Rita Mae Brown.  Willa Cather.  Angela Davis.  Audre Lord.  Mary Oliver.  Sappho (sigh).  Gertrude Stein.  Alice B. Toklas.  Jeannette Winterson (be still my latent homo heart).  Beaudelaire, Walt Whitman.  Jean Cocteau, Hart Crane, E.M. Forster, Andre Gide, Patricia Highsmith, D.H. Lawrence.  W. Somerset Maugham.  Evelyn Waugh.  Tony Kushner.  Armistead Maupin.  Adrienne Rich.  Susan Sontag.

*     *    *

Now to non-fiction.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, because quite frankly, I’m exhausted.  But I prefer your contributions anyway. 

For The Time Being, Annie Dillard

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Miss American Pie, Margaret Sartor (I can’t recommend this memoir highly enough)

Goat, Brad Land

The Circus Fire, Stewart O’Nan

Auto de Fay, Fay Weldon

Dominion, Matthew Scully

Vows, Peter Manseau

Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter, Barbara Robinette Moss

Boy With Loaded Gun, Lewis Nordan

Savage Beauty:  The Life of  Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford (this may be the  single best literary biography I’ve ever read)

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

Everything by James Hillman.  I don’t know any other way to say it.

Last Train to Memphis, and Careless Love, by Peter Guralnick

The Undertaker, Thomas Lynch

Among the Thugs, Bill Buford

This is a scant list, obviously, and one I expect all of you to contribute to heavily.  But I will add a few of the books that fall under the category Haven Is Waving Her Freak Umbrella Without Shame.  I ADORE memoirs of drug and alcohol abuse.  Oh, how they please me.  Some of these are moving and literary, others are WOW, just WOW Motley Crue.

A Drinking Life:  Pete Hamill (so good)

Drinking:  A Love Story, by Carolyn Knapp

How To Stop Time:  Heroin from A to Z, Ann Marlowe

The Dirt, Motley Crue

The Heroin Diaries, Nikki Sixx

The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll

To Hell and Partway Back, Marilyn Manson

Dry, Augusten Burroughs

More, Now, Again, Elizabeth Wurtzel

Candy, Luke Davies

I just looked at addiction memoirs on amazon and realized there are approximately 642 I haven’t read and I wish I had them RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW.   All my books look stupid.  I’m going to eat some cake.

Read this book.  Make recommendations.  Poetry is next!  In the meantime, you’re all just as precious as a dew on the whiskers of the Easter Bunny.

Published in: on September 25, 2008 at 10:36 pm  Comments (185)  

On Other Writers

Many of you Blog Babies are also writers – either aspiring, accomplished, published, or retired.  The latter group doesn’t need this advice, but if I may offer a few words of wisdom to those of you who are working on manuscripts now, it would be this.  Do not ever gratuitously criticize another writer in public.  I’ve been asked to write book reviews for years and have always refused, because the only review I could write would be for a book about which I felt unqualified admiration and support.  The reviewing process is a divisive one, and writers should be the safety network for one another.  And the reviewing mechanism is, at (let’s just say) the largest scale, profoundly venal:  add those things together and you have a wide brush with which I would prefer not to be painted.

I was recently asked in an interview to choose between two contemporary authors, neither of whom I like, and my immediate response was to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar enough with their work to answer that question.”  It was half-honest, half-an end-run, but it worked.  But the most important reason to be kind is because, as happened in our conversation about Jincy Willett, she magically appeared.  If I had been even slightly unkind about her I would been sick, particularly if I’d been snarky for the sake of it when in fact I love her books.  So remember that:  in the public arena, graciousness counts for a good deal. 

There are exceptions, such as when someone has committed a crime against literature or his readers – pathological liars and the like.  A friend of mine was trying to write an article for a major magazine about an author with a cult following, and he got the idea that she was going to publish private information about him (which she never would have done) and so he began threatening her viciously.  She eventually had to be hidden in the Conde Nast empire, and assigned guards.  The abuse with which he battered my friend was scary in the way that out-of-control, narcissistic bullies are always scary, and I have no intention of forgiving him.  I also would never speak of him.  And of course there’s James Frey. 

But really the best way to air your grievances is in a small party of trustworthy friends, like my Otters, who will let me rail against whoever is producing the most egregious mediocrity and being rewarded for it at the moment.  No one knows about it, no one is hurt.  In public it’s the better part of valor to discuss who you love, and why.  There ought to be far more people who are thrilling (at any given time) than the opposite. So I hope it’s a regular feature – the books and writers we love and for whom we must sing praises.  Because frankly, they are better writers and more deserving of our attention.  Let the false quantities slip away, as they are bound to do.

I’ll start with just a few of my canonized loves:

Gregory Maguire is a national treasure:  let that be said right away.  I had loved his books and found the depth with which he combined myth and fairy tales and historical figures to be astonishing, but with Wicked, and it’s sequal, Son of Witch, he stepped out into something altogether different:  the imaginative as free and wild, while also very grounded in the craft and narrative.  Wicked is one of the most important books, from an ethical standpoint, I’ve ever read.  Three cheers for Gregory Maguire, a great man and a great novelist.

Helen de Witt appeared with this tour de force novel and then faded from view.  She had issues, similar to those experienced by Spalding Gray; by which I mean, jumping into the Hudson and being saved at the last minute (as opposed to Spalding, who did not want to be saved, I think).  At base this is the story of a single mother trying to home-school a child genius.  Beyond that it is simply one of the best, most moving novels I’ve ever read.

Given the tragic loss of David Foster Wallace, I think it would behoove us to read the great and important books about depression, particularly depression and creativity.  Kay Redfield Jamison has two:  An Unquiet Mind (her own experience w/ bipolar illness), and Night Falls Fast, a study of suicide.  And then the first rate, chilling, Darkness Visible, by William Styron.  I would also recommend, rather idiosyncratically, the Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut, a memoir of his descent into schizophrenia.  He’s such a good writer that you can actually feel the horror descend on him.  These are all frightening books, but important. 

I’ve never hidden my love for DeLillo, but after Underworld (robbed!  robbed of the National Book Award!) I couldn’t imagine him writing a gentle, heart-piercing novel of 9/11, but that’s exactly what he did in Falling Man.  Perfect, perfect.

All right – I would love to hear your take on national treasures, or whether as writers we ought to behave as colleagues (or if that’s something leftover from my small-town upbringing) and what books fall under the categories of greatness.

Published in: on September 23, 2008 at 11:29 pm  Comments (171)  

Carpe Haven

Oh YES, I am aware that I brought this on myself.  First, I repeated that story about going helmet shopping with my sister (and ended up with a little umbrella on a hat-stick).  You’re probably thinking that the ghost of 1970’s feminism is what cursed me over the weekend, but in fact it was Rilke.  I was typing in a comment and called out to J., “Can I blaspheme a Rilke poem in the comments section of my blog?”  He said he didn’t see why not, and then things went in this order:  I finished typing, I yelled, “I did it!”  One minute passed, J. heard a terrible sound, a sound he refuses to describe in greater detail (for the best), minutes passed.  Imagine how confused you would be if you were, in one minute, sitting at your desk blaspheming Rilke and some time later you found yourself on the floor, being told not to be frightened, an ambulance was on the way?  Don’t be FRIGHTENED?  Also?  I was a 100% amnesiac, just like in a soap opera.  I couldn’t remember anything until I was told it.  There are some things I’m still unclear about, but one thing I’m quite sure of is that helmets are indeed our best friends, after badgers.  You will see from the photograph that I’m surrounded by loved ones in this picture:  My badger Milton, my helmet, my bicycle.  I don’t ride the bicycle, it’s art. 

Thank you all for your kindness and your loving concern.  I was treated extraordinarily well in the Durham Regional ER and by all the doctors and nurses there.  Scott flew to the hospital to be with me.  I’ve only recently discovered that he also ate an apple on the trip, which – HELLO – that seems like a choking hazard.  The Daughter dropped everything to come stay with Baby Augusten all day so John could be at the hospital.  His truck has a stick-shift; I hope he didn’t eat anything on the way over.  Thank you, too, to everyone who e-mailed or called.  You are all dear to me.

Published in: on September 23, 2008 at 2:52 pm  Comments (73)  

Every Day Is Independents Day

Faulkner at Rowan Oaks.  Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Faulkner at Rowan Oak. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

I unqualifiedly and unabashedly love independent bookstores.  I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where I have three to choose from, including my hometown store, The Regulator Bookshop (and honestly, there is no reason not to order a book online from a local store – you’ll get it the same way you’d get it from a giant retailer).  I’m one of those non-famous writers who has been greatly supported by independents from the very beginning of my career, so I owe them all a debt of gratitude.  Really, I’ve been supported by booksellers, including at the two major chains, so thanks to them as well, especially for handselling those books of mine that fell under the radar . . . by which I mean all but the first one.

My heart belongs to Durham, of course, until I’m on a book tour, and then I’m all Haven Fickle Pants.  You know how I feel about Books & Books in Florida, and in the comments I mentioned the amazing gift I was given by Liz at Big Hat Books in Indianapolis.  But if the Regulator has any real competition for my abiding affection, it’s from Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.  Oxford, Mississippi:  that should be all I have to say.  It’s the home of F**lkn*r, Rowan Oak.  You can take a tour through the house and see, as if he were still sitting there, where he wrote notes on the wall for Light in August.  My heart skipped a beat the first time I saw his handwriting.  Here is his typewriter, also very moving to behold:

Oxford is the home of Ole Miss (I do know what happened there during the Civil Rights movement and it was gruesome – I’m just talking about the present, here) (Dylan has a great song about those events called “Oxford Town”), and is the hometown or birthplace of Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Elizabeth Spencer, John Grisham, Willie Morris, someone named Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, for a time the great Randall Kenan, and many others.  Jimmy Buffet is NOT from there – a common mistake! – but from Pascagoula.  One of my best students, Joel, earned his undergraduate degree at Ole Miss.  A friend who lives there, Ron Shapiro, once ran for public office with the slogan:  THROW THE RASCALS IN.  [Ed. note:  Ron, Haven received one of your campaign posters, thank you.  She tried to scan it but doesn’t know how.  Will work on it.] The store is in Mississippi, one of my three favorite states in the country.  

Square Books was opened thirty years ago by Richard and Lisa Howorth (Lisa is another Oxford writer).  Richard is a former president of the American Booksellers Association, a diehard friend of the First Amendment, and served two terms as Mayor of Oxford.  The store hosts a weekly radio show, featuring writers and musicians, called Thacker Mountain Radio.  It’s broadcast on Mississippi Public Radio and draws (literally) hundreds of people each week.  Lyn Roberts, who seems to manage everything at once – including the store, UNRULY authors, the radio show, my dinner – knows as much about books as anyone I’ve ever met.  Frankly, I love her. 

After my reading in Oxford a couple weeks ago I was talking to Richard and Lyn and mentioned I was thinking of getting a varmint gun.  Richard asked me why and I said because as soon as I bring the dogs in (on a number of afternoons) I’ve seen a rat mosey across the backyard.  It just . . . strolls.  Once in a while it hops.  The situation is untenable.  Having a rat that close to my house and my children is like having a shark in the bathtub, and forgive me, any Buddhists reading this, but one of us is going to have to go and I am much, much taller than the rodent.  I win this one.  Look at this monstrosity:

That one I took with my special night-vision goggles.  Here is one where I risked life and limb using the flash:


God above.  And then that rat, or another very similar to it, got in the barnyard and completely terrorized everyone, including my sister who continues to have her back to us.  She is wearing the yellow vinyl trousers.  As you can see, one goose and one pig are both down. 


Again, acting as a conservationist and friend to nature, I got extremely close to the dangerous animal:


So after I got home from that set of travels – I have more coming up, alas – I opened a letter with a strange return address, and discovered that Square Books in Oxford had given me a year’s membership in THE VARMINT HUNTER’S ASSOCIATION!  It’s totally official and comes with these special gifts, in addition to a magazine!

That’s my badge!  Oh, if I only still had my Mickey Mouse Club corduroy jacket, can you imagine how the two would look together?  Of course that jacket would fit my baby, but he would look great wearing this accessory.  I also got a card to carry in my wallet; I assume it’s what I show the police when they drop by to see why I’m firing my varmint gun within the city limits.  It’s like a FREE PASS.

Do you see my name on it?  There are many reasons to support your local independent bookseller – the staff, the stock, the years of experience and the genuine love of literature – but what you see above is the best I can think of.  The independents take a person like me seriously.  Booksellers and my dogs.  Aaaand that’s about it.  Thank you, thank you Robert and Lyn, for doubling the list with one graceful gesture.

Also?  When rodents invade your barnyard and study, why is it never THIS kind?

Published in: on September 18, 2008 at 11:38 pm  Comments (231)  

No Definition But Recognition

The title you see above is from the marginalia in my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I haven’t looked at since I was an undergraduate (a long time ago).  I got it out today in order to write this post, and became engrossed, both in the book and in my own underlinings and notes.  I must have read it three or four times, because there are all the hallmarks of the OCD student I was.  [Ed. note:  Am.]  I used a blue pen the first time through; a red pen the second.  At some point a pencil became involved.  Then I came across a section which I had blocked off, and in the margin written:  Episcemology (from the Greek for Pisces, and logos, or knowledge).  That would be, I believe, the branch of philosophy concerned with can truthfully be said about:

I sat down on the floor, shocked.  Maybe all those years my brother and sister spent making me to stay in the recliner while they spun it around in fast circles had really done what Melinda hoped for?  And not just the eye-wobbling and toddler drunk-walk, but actual brain damage?  I looked more closely at my hand-writing and saw OH IT’S OKAY, THAT ‘C’ ACTUALLY HAD A LITTLE LINE ACROSS THE TOP!  It was a T!  Epistemology!  My GPA was not in jeopardy!

It turns out I didn’t need to review the novel, although it was fun, because Pirsig’s concerns (a definition of ‘Quality,’ which he believes to have Kantian a priori-ness, and the romantic/classical thought divide) are not mine own.  I would never mock a philosophical novel that sold millions of copies and was translated into twenty-seven languages.  Seriously, bravo.  [Ed. note:  Haven does actually take issue with Pirsig’s attempts to squash Eastern and Western philosophy together into a Thought Sandwich.  And also maybe it would have been a GREAT novel if it had been a novel, or a GREAT guide to motorcycle maintenance if it had actually been one.  She is unsure on both counts.  She does, however, love the story.]

This is what interests me:  my daughter had an amazing history teacher in high school.  We shall call him Ben, for that was indeed his name.  On the first day of class he said the study of history is nothing more or less than an attempt to figure out how we are to live.  When K. came home and told me that, my ears lifted and tilted forward like those of a good bird dog.  Because of him I did a most un-Haven thing and acted as a chaperone on a school field trip.  [Ed. note:  Never before, never since.]   I won’t say that Ben was responsible for my daughter going on to earn a degree in philosophy, but I think that was the start, and I am deeply grateful to him.  How are we to live?  That he asked the question of his students every day – that it became an ongoing and deep interest for some of them – is a wonder.  The study of philosophy (or theology, for that matter) is in itself an attempt to find an adequate and satisfying structure around which one may build one’s life.

These are the walls of the house I live in:  Children (my own, I mean, although I’m sure yours are also holy).  Family and friendship, which are bound for me.  Whitehead’s Process philosophy.  Quakerism, particularly as it was practiced by the early Friends (George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, etc.).  The New Testament.  Poetry.  The American Transcendentalists:  Twain, Crane, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson.  Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.  Leonard Cohen:  consider how he combines various strands of all I love in just the chorus of ‘Anthem’.  There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.  Art.  Dogs. Conversation.  Popcorn. 

If I were perfectly honest, Emerson would rise and rise until he was bumping against Whitehead, which he does quite often.  I’ll close with one of his most famous and beautiful passages, and an image of a painting of Ralph Waldo my beloved Leslie Staub made for me.  I would love to hear from all of you about how we are to live.

Painting by Leslie Staub

Painting by Leslie Staub


Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  I am glad to the brink of fear.


Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 11:18 pm  Comments (134)  

What I Learned On My Book Tour

I learned a great many things on this recent outing, such as the value of a belt.  But also?  If your pants are going to fall down, Miami is a good place for it.  I think it has something to do with Jennifer Lopez, but that’s just an intuition.  And I learned a few things I didn’t know about taxidermy.  For instance, there’s a fine line between a beautifully preserved specimen and a dead animal (really, it’s like . . . you can’t even see the line until you’ve crossed it), and sleeping with a dead rabbit night after night will sometimes cause the rabbit to appear to have been hit by a car.  Packing it in a suitcase doesn’t help.  At first I tried to move him by packing him/it between clothes, and one of its ears got bent in a disturbing way, so instead of wearing my cowboy boots I packed them, slipping her inside one of them.  I thought this was ingenious but when the bunny emerged he seemed even flatter and more boot-shaped than before.  Then the worst occurred:  I opened my suitcase to discover it had been inspected by the TSA.  I frantically went over the list of what is forbidden in a checked suitcase and I could not see, on the list in my mind, any mention of dead animals.  IT’S OKAY.  FLAT STANLEY WAS SAFE.  This is what he looked like before the trip:

Now you expect an ‘after’ photograph, but I just can’t.  Anyway, he’s under my pillow.  This, however, is what a live animal looks like:

That is my dog, Iorek.  He is posing with my two-year-old’s shoe, for perspective.  IT’S OKAY.  I took the baby out of the shoe earlier.

I also learned that people are astonishingly kind – well, I knew that.  The belt thing was something of a surprise.  I was treated kindly everywhere I went, by everyone I came into contact with – in every city, in every hotel, by everyone who attended my readings.  Bookshop owners were extraordinarily generous, and whaaaaaaa? is this?  Commenters drove long distances to see me, which shocked me every time and made me teary.  And to everyone who has given their time and money to IODINE, I can’t thank you enough.  I’ll never again believe The Novel Is Dead, as is so often proclaimed.  It is Merely Flat and Appears To Be Sleeping. 

Finally . . . wait, let me back up.  I’m not a person with enemies (that I know of) (and if I have some you may hold your peace because I am blissfully unaware of it) but once upon a time someone stole something very dear to me, and did so knowing how deeply I would be injured.  Only in the first week or so after did I actively wish injury upon this person; after that, and to this day, I have merely been puzzled as to how much must have been lacking in My Bete Noir’s (hereafter MBN) life to have done such a thing.  MBN is a person who, as Martin Buber, my favorite Jewish philosopher – and I’m sure yours, too! – would put it, turns every Thou into an It.  “O piling up of information:  It, It, It!”  The purpose of such a life is not to apprehend, nor is it to fully engage with any thing or person – no one is a You – but to collect, and to deflect the deepest meaning of all particular occasions. 

I heard recently that MBN, on one or another whirlwind Piling Up Of Information tours, made fun of Graceland in a very public way.  That was when I knew I could cease puzzling over my own loss, because there are people among us who have a hole where there ought to be abiding compassion and tenderness and grief.  There is no sadder figure in our popular culture than Elvis Presley, and nothing more heartrending than to invade his home and the scene of his death, the place he is buried between his parents, wearing a headset and staring at his relics.  MBN did not see a boy from Tupelo who thought he’d purchased a mansion and who decorated it according to his whim and his loneliness.  And apparently MBN’s headset didn’t include Lisa Marie’s account of how, as a little girl, she would see him walking down the stairs and he was so much larger than life, so much more than any other man she knew, it was like watching a god descend. 

Others have made fun of his taste, how small the house actually is, and I am always stunned at how callous and blind people can be.  Graceland is a holy site, because it is the place a man struggled for control of his life and his soul and lost, and not just any man but a good one, a generous and kind and brilliant man.  It is the place a child lost her father, and where the father before her lost his own two beloved parents.  Elvis lived with the ghost of his own dead twin.  He was made an It in his own lifetime:  Colonel Parker actually referred to engagements he set up for Elvis as ‘exploitations,’ and to Elvis’s face.  There are people who would mock him and those who see him as a genuinely tragic figure.  I don’t care what the latter type looks like or what they wear, or if they stand at the gates on the date he died and openly sob:  I’m with them.  My brother-in-law, who is really much too nice for my sister, well, okay, she gives them to me too, has given me priceless Elvis paraphernalia from his own past, and each piece breaks my heart a little, because Elvis paid for those concerts with his life while others danced and spent his money.

Did I have a point?  Yes.  I’ve been to Memphis a dozen times but this year just driving over the exit for Elvis Presley Boulevard caused me to let go of what MBN took from me.  As I wrote to a friend, I went out walking, as I always do, and when a woman stopped and asked me if I was a Christian, son, I said, Ma’am I am tonight.

Published in: on September 14, 2008 at 10:07 pm  Comments (193)  

David Foster Wallace

I have been planning a particular post for a few days now, but I’m going to put it aside until tomorrow, following the news that David Foster Wallace has committed suicide at the age of 46.  This will be upsetting to many, many people in the world of books and ideas, and those who love a person brave enough to combine the two, as he did.  He was a brazen prose stylist, a great wit, and the rare public intellectual.  His essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is perfect from start to finish.  And while it is has never been free of (often reductive) criticism, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece.  I read it with two bookmarks:  one for the text and one for the footnotes, at the beach one summer.  It has remained a hallmark in my reading life.  It is like nothing that came before it and nothing has ever compared since.  There are images, whole passages of that novel that are so fresh and redemptive they justify any tangents or self-indulgences.  I’ve often thought that it was a work that could save a life, if for no other reason than it is so boundlessly joyous and broad and deep all at once.  It didn’t save Wallace’s own life, but it was an astonishing contribution, among many he made, and he should be held in the highest esteem. 

Gawker offered this piece of an address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005:

“[L]earning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”

Wallace hanged himself and was found by his wife.  He must have been in extraordinary pain to have done such a thing to a loved one.  No one reading this is a stranger, I’m guessing, to the suicidal impulse, which Jung believed was ‘the Soul’s call for drastic change.’  Sometimes it’s possible to make that change and sometimes we must rely on something much smaller and more immediate.  The Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who wrote extensively about despair and dread, said, “I have always lived with the awareness of the impossibility of living.  And what has made existence endurable to me is my curiosity as to how I would get from one minute, one day, one year to the next.”  He also made the rather pithy observation that no one has yet proven that it is better to be than not to be. 

Let’s assume that it’s better to be; it’s better to turn to the Buddha or Bob Dylan.  There is always a shot of whiskey and Jesus’s commandment that we come and reason together.  I don’t have it in me to judge those who kill themselves, as many people do, claiming that suicide is an unforgivably selfish act.  Every death is a loss.  This one is a damned shame.

Published in: on September 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm  Comments (35)  

Thank You, Thank You Very Much!

There are a number of questions I’d like to pose to you, my virtual posse, and I’ll get to them in time.  But an interesting one came up today:  what is the very best (or favorite) compliment you’ve ever received?

Here’s why I ask.  On one of my booktours I was flying Southwest and was fortunate enough to get the aisle seat in the third row from the front.  The window seat next to me was empty.  The last person to board came dashing in and up the aisle and said to me – and I don’t know how to describe the way he said it, because it’s not going to sound funny, but it was VERY funny and I knew it immediately – “Look, it’s your fault you have to get up to let me in.”  I said, “OH NAY.  It is your fault for being an untimely slacker.”  He had trouble getting his carry-on bag under the seat and I said, “You’re one of those.”  “One of what?” he asked.  “One of those people who don’t want to check a bag because they’re so enormously important they can’t waste time waiting for the bags to be unloaded, and so entitled they believe they can take up as much space as they want.”  He looked at me gleefully and said, “You really KNOW me.”  Needless to say, we made with the yackety-yack all the way from Houston to Durham, and much of the conversation was side-achingly funny.  It turned out he was a breast cancer specialist, on his way to deliver a paper at a conference at Duke Medical School.  He had developed a very specialized technique of tumor removal, and he showed me the slides he would use the next day.  We took to each other just smashingly well – which is odd, because, you know, he was a doctor, not a bohemian or an outsider or . . . one of us is what I mean.  But after an hour I had reached the point where, when he mentioned how much he loved spending a day on his boat I said, “Oh here we go.  A boat.  Boat Guy.  So you get out on the water and you’re drinking a beer and feeling manly, and the wind is in your hair, and the 25-year-old nurse you’re trying to seduce looks SO fetching in her bikini, and THIS is freedom.  You are free.  And the next day you go back to working 80-hour weeks because you want a bigger boat.”  He said, “Hey, that nurse was twenty-seven.”

When we landed in Durham he turned to me and said, “You know, you are so smart and so attentive and quick – just lightning fast – you would make a great bird dog.”

I am complimented constantly by my readers and by booksellers, etc., also my mother, and I appreciate every one, truly.  But THAT will always be the best. 

Okay, your turn.

Published in: on September 7, 2008 at 11:29 pm  Comments (122)  

My Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman

What I want to say

is that there is nothing in your body that lies.

All that is new is telling the truth.

I’m here, that somebody else,

an old tree in the background.



Stand still at your door,

sure of yourself, a white stone, a good stone –

as exceptional as laughter

you will strike fire,

that new thing!

         –Anne Sexton


You’re only the best I ever had.

         From a poem by Kat called “I Just Opened Up My Eyes”


Χαλεπά τά καλά

         Her tattoo, which in ancient Greek translates as “Beauty is harsh.”

         In modern Greek it means “Nothing without labor.”


                                                             photo by Jacquie Causey

She was the greatest surprise of my life.  I was eighteen, in college, working midnights, and about to leave to tour eleven countries in Europe.  But when I became ill and went to the campus doctor and he told me I was pregnant, my only thought was that she was here and she was here to stay.  Mothers always say extremely sentimental things about their children, but on my honor:  I loved her the moment I knew she was growing.

Someone recently asked me if I was afraid to become a single mother at 18, 19, and I said no, because I had so deeply loved my niece and nephew and so I knew how to love a child.  But more importantly, I had a dream one night in which an old woman said this to me:  “There is a single, simple thing you must know.  Treat every moment with her as if it is the only one she will remember.”  And when I woke up I knew how to do that.  I also dreamed that I was sitting on the floor in front of a vending machine eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and a woman walked in and said, “You’re having a girl.”  I said, “I know that.”

She was born September 6th, 1984, in Biloxi, Mississippi, during a Dixie storm.

What a girl she was!  By the age of three she had memorized all of the dialogue in The Wizard of Oz, and she loved to wear little dresses and walk around outside in her ruby slippers, carrying an umbrella, saying things like, “I wish this rain would stop.”

I have never known another child who was born perfectly reasonable.  Kat was.  I could explain things to her so simply and she would nod; she never misbehaved, ever.  We talked all the time.  She was profoundly opinionated about what she should wear, and ended up going to school in outfits I am sure she would now find . . . unfortunate.  She loved to talk on the phone with the Virgin Mary.  Once I heard her say, “Hello, Birgin?  What are you doing?  Are you jumping rope?  Where is you son?”


We had no dark days and she had no awkward years.  She went from being a beautiful child, gentle and thoroughly compassionate, to being a beautiful teenager.  She was and is also a brilliant mimic, and I once had a professor who would give her a quarter to do imitations.  She is still among the funniest people I’ve ever known.


I could name her thousand gifts, but the greatest must be her love of children, the way they love her in return; the fact that she was willing, as an undergraduate, to train as a doula and help deliver the babies of Spanish-speaking women who couldn’t communicate with their doctors.  She helped deliver nearly forty children.  Obadiah believes she hung the sky and the moon.  And to Baby Augusten, she is everything.




Her loyalty is unquestionable, her integrity a marvel.  She knows the names of hundreds of plants, and can make gardens out of nothing.  There has never been a dog she feared.  Her family is her permanence.  She rarely angers, and even then is quick to forgive.  And if you are her friend, you are her friend for life – she would walk on broken glass for the people in her life.  Years and years ago she suspected that her best friend might need a new mother, and asked me if I would take the job, and I did.  This is my adopted daughter, Brittany.  I love her, too, very much.


In May, Kat earned a degree from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, in Philosophy.  For anyone that would be an astonishing feat.  But what moved me most that day was the sense that she and I were never supposed to make it; a pregnant, single 18-year-old is not supposed to end up with one of the brightest, most diligent, joyous women after 23 years.  The only time I teared up (I was brave), was when I said to her, “We did it, we got all the way here,” and she agreed.



My mother and sister and niece and Kalia drove all the way to North Carolina to see her graduate.  It was a lovely thing.

I must say though, that far more surprising and rewarding than her degree is the fact that she is becoming a brilliant musician, with a voice so rich and moving I want to listen to her all the time and I’m afraid to listen to her at all, for fear I’ll collapse in a state.  She is bizarrely talented.  Many people agree with me.


Finally, my first born, my little string bean, love of my life:  I’ve said it countless times.  You were the greatest blessing I’ve ever known, and you are the finest person in my life.  If you weren’t my daughter, I would wish every day that you were my daughter.  Happy Birthday, Chicken Wing.

Published in: on September 6, 2008 at 3:04 am  Comments (49)